The strangeness of the Carolingian rural state

There’s nothing like reading research far outside your field to give you a new perspective on your own work. In my case it’s making my way through Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus, The Creation of Inequality that’s brought home to me how strange the Carolingian empire was in one respect.

Flannery and Marcus’ book is an anthropological/archaeological look at a wide range of prehistoric, historical and contemporary societies at varying levels of social complexity. There’s no mention of the Carolingians (or indeed any European societies), but there is a lot on cultures in the Americas, including the Moche, Mayan and Zapotec civilisations.

Panorama of Monte Alban from the South Platform

Panorama of Monte Albán site

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Love my sword more than you

Sutton Hoo sword

Early C7 sword from Sutton Hoo ship burial. Image © Trustees of the British Museum

Inspired by Jon Jarrett, who is now enthusiastically blogging large numbers of long-past seminars, I thought I should weigh in and give readers a brief account of some seminars from the IHR Earlier Medieval Seminar summer term programme. The first one of these I went to was by Sue Brunning of UCL and the British Museum on “‘Precious iron’, ‘friend in war’: swords with character in Anglo-Saxon England”, which took the vague clichés I had been aware of about the emotional importance of swords to early medieval warriors and placed them on a far better evidential basis. She was talking about the concept of artefact biography and stressing how important the life history of an object was: thinking not just its manufacture, but about its ownership, circulation, repair, modification and end.

Sue’s work draws on images, texts and material objects, though there’s something of a mismatch between the sources: most of the archaeological evidence comes from the earlier Anglo-Saxon period (fifth to seventh century), when furnished burials are common, and most of the textual evidence comes from the later period. In this paper, Sue was specifically talking about swords as having “character”, both in the sense of individual features that made them distinctive, and in the sense of having a reputation (as implied by someone behaving “out of character”). There’s good evidence of individual swords having distinctive visual appearances: Anglo-Saxon wills, such as that of Athelstan, the son of Ethelred the Unready refer to several different swords by their appearances (e.g. “notched swords”, damaged and unrepaired). Descriptions of hilt ornaments appear in poems such as Beowulf as well as in wills. Swords could be individually recognisable, especially since all components could be replaced or augmented individually (Customisable swords with “go sharper” stripes?) Meanwhile archaeological studies of wear on sword hilts shows asymmetrical patterns, suggesting that the (two-edged) sword was always put back in the scabbard the same way round. Many pommels have different faces, with a plain face that is more worn, implying that the patterned face is shown off more, on display to the viewer.

Although named swords are common in poetry, they don’t appear in prose or official documents and the archaeological evidence is ambiguous: it’s not clear whether the runes found on some swords are names of the sword or its owner. Possibly names were more informally given, and might be changed: Sue suggested the parallel of owners naming cars today. What we can see, however, is swords with histories. They appear in poems such as Waldere, but also in official documents: Duke Hugo gives King Athelstan Constantine’s sword, which would be 600 years old, and Athelstan’s will refers to a sword of Offa that would be 200 years old. Old swords were not considered redundant. Some swords show severe signs of wear, and have been repaired and modified, with fittings changed or ornaments and inscriptions added to a previously undecorated sword. At this point, I must admit that I did start thinking about the old joke from a Stanley Holloway monologue.

‘Ere’s the axe – that’s the genuine axe, Sir,
That’s given Royal necks some ‘ard whacks.
Tho’ it’s ‘ad a new ‘andle and perhaps a new head
But it’s a real old original axe.

Sue also mentioned ring swords, with a ring attached to the hilt – these could be added and subtracted: metallurgical analysis can sometimes show where a fitting hole for a ring has been put and later removed. Sue suggested that sword rings possibly represented oaths sworn to a lord and might be a visual representation of a warrior’s career, something that reflected on the character or reputation of the wielder. We perhaps need to think of swords and men as being in partnership, sharing a reputation. And these were long-term relationships. There are burials in Kent where the sword is enfolded in the body or arms. No other weapon is touched like this in these graves, suggesting a relationship that extended even beyond death. Swords did not just have an economic value, but a symbolic character.

As you will gather, Sue’s talk was an excellent one, and implicitly made a good argument for interdisciplinary study, something that has recently been called into question. There is a strand of military history that tends to downplay literary sources on warfare, see them as fanciful, far removed from the practical logic of combat. But Sue’s paper, moving between different types of sources, shows common elements to Anglo-Saxon warrior culture, where weapons are more than simply means of attack and defence. If a modern day solider can still write a book called Love My Rifle More than You, and say of a modern-day mass-produced weapon: “I love my M4…Gun in your hands and you’re in a special place”, how much more potent a character must a handmade “battle-beam” have had?

IMC 1: Early metal, dodgy horses and the meaning of gifts

I’m finally starting my first report on the 2011 International Medieval Congress in Leeds, talking mainly about things I heard on the first day (though the last paper of the day will be postponed till the next report). So first of all, I went to hear the keynote lectures:

Scavenging and Its End in the Early Medieval Britain, Robin Fleming, Department of History, Boston College, Massachusetts

Rich and Poor in Late Medieval Europe: The Political Paradox of Post-Plague Economics, Samuel K. Cohn Jr., Centre for Medieval & Renaissance Studies, University of Glasgow

I’m going to start with the second paper, which had as it basis one of the ideal moments for doing comparative history: the continent-wide demographic shock resulting from the plagues of the late fourteenth century (Cohn didn’t discuss in this lecture one of his more controversial views, that this disease wasn’t bubonic plague). But he started by pointing out that c 1375-c1475 was a rare period, in which the gap between the rich and poor narrowed in a number of different societies (at least those where we can see wage rates). Did this have wider social effects? Robert Brenner argued that even if the wealth of the poor increased, they didn’t necessarily have increased liberty. There were diverging fates west and east of the Elbe, with compulsory labour declining in the west, but tighter bonds on peasants in the east. Demography wasn’t key here: there were different trajectories.

Brenner, however, didn’t look at towns, and Cohn’s main argument was that if you compared rural and urban settings you could see differences even within the same societies. Very basically, in both England and northern Italy, you could see peasants and the urban poor gaining financially, but the urban poor losing rights in cities. In England, early concessions to artisans were rolled back, in Italy, cities such as Florence were more and more dominated by the oligarchs. In contrast, the mountain peasants in the Tuscan highlands were actually winning rights in the late fourteenth century, during the struggle between Florence and Milan.

Cohn asked the question of why the urban patricians were more successful than rural landlords and argued that we needed to connect together the study of political rights and poverty (rather than separating them out as constitutional/economic history). He saw the urban elites as better at divide and rule tactics, consciously splitting middling sorts away from the urban poor, and offering them selective patronage, while also using recurring bouts of plague to set up a pattern of policing both moral and physical cleanliness of those at the bottom of the heap. Cohn’s argument, finally, was that the study of poverty is a political matter, and that political and economic impoverishment didn’t necessarily go together.

I really don’t know the period well enough to be sure about the detail of Cohn’s argument (this was one of the occasions when I’m particularly conscious that the IMC covers more than 1000 years of history and some very different societies), but as a general reminder of the complexity of poverty, it was a useful paper. But before that we’d had one of the most eye-opening papers I heard at the whole conference: Robin Fleming on metalworking in fifth and sixth century Britain.

Robin’s argument was simple, but impressively backed up by archaeological data: today, you don’t just have poor individuals, but poor societies. In the same way, Britain in the fifth and sixth-century was desperately poor; as she put it, Roman British society fell hard, fast and early. And one of the key signs of this poverty was the recycling of metal. Roman Britain had been producing so many hundreds of tons iron, that you can see the pollution effects in Greenland ice from C1 to C4. A Roman fort excavated in Scotland (I didn’t catch the name) had more than a million Roman nails found there.

But from the late C4 the production of fresh metal faltered, and then ceased. Smelting metals produces copious amounts of slag, which survives well into the archaeological record, and the contrasts are immense. The C6 settlement of Mucking in Essex probably produced about 10 kilos of iron. Beauport Park in Sussex was producing hundreds of times more in the Roman period. Iron production declined elsewhere in Europe as well after the second and third centuries, probably to around 10% of its original level. But in Britain it effectively vanished, along with the industrial communities carrying out the work, and their skills-base.

Instead, metal was scavenged: iron clamps from the Roman baths at Bath were hacked out about 400-450, and a late C4 cache of scavenged lead has been found in Northamptonshire. Robin was suggesting that votive offerings from shrines were probably also scavenged. Another sign of this scavenging is that the metallurgy of early Anglo-Saxon objects made of copper/bronze/brass is very variable, depending on what was in the mix they’d been able to recycle.

One of the key points that Robin made is that while recycled iron is fine for most things, it’s not good for sharp objects. As a result, while a lot of knives have been found in graves, they’re poor quality. There are more swords surviving from the C6 and C7, especially in Kent and they’re often made with quite complex iron alloys that English swordsmiths couldn’t have produced. Robin suggested that it was these people with access to imports who became able to gain more surplus from others and thus increase their wealth, though she admitted it was also a chicken and egg situation. By C7 there were specialist smithing sites developing again in Britain, but there were some technologies that still took a long time to recover. Woodworking saws were a lost technology until the C12, with all surviving boards from before then axe-cut.

Robin’s talk provided yet more food for thought in the never-ending Fall of Rome debate. On the one hand, it rather scuppers the happy peasant idea of the post-Roman optimists, like Chris Wickham. Just because the elites are taking less from you doesn’t necessarily mean you’re better off, and in particular, I suspect crappily inadequate blades would literally blunt your enthusiasm and your productive skills. On the other hand, it once again confirms that post-Roman Britain is an outlier, and the dangers of generalising from that to the fate of the whole of the Roman Empire. It’s also interesting because it’s precisely from Britain that we can see particularly clearly the signs of economic revival in the seventh century, as a later paper from the day would show.

After this, I spent most of the rest of the day hearing about gifts, as part of a mammoth series of session organised by King’s College London. The sessions were:

Gift-Giving, I: Gift-Giving and the Early Middle Ages

Paper 121-a Gifts: classical legacies/timeless pathologies: three preachable moments and a gift horse Danuta Shanzer, Institut für Klassische Philologie, Mittel- und Neulatein, Universität Wien / Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC

Paper 121-b The Gift of the Elephant: On the Meanings of Abulabaz Paul M. Cobb, Department of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations, University of Pennsylvania

Paper 121-c Voluntary Enslavement: From Self-Sale to Self-GiftAlice Rio, Department of History, King’s College London

Gift-Giving, II: Gift-Giving and Objects

Paper 221-a Offering Brooches to the Dead: The Changing Gendered Value of a Gift between Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages Irene Barbiera, Dipartimento di Storia, Università degli Studi di Padova

Paper 221-b Making the World Go Round?: Coinage and Gift in Early Medieval England and Francia (c. 675-900) Rory Naismith, Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge

Paper 221-c The Star Cloak of the Emperor Henry II Stuart Airlie, School of Humanities, University of Glasgow

I particularly enjoyed the first session, which commenced with a breathless dash through ideas of the gift by Danuta Shanzer. She started out by saying that good gifts were all alike in some ways, which was boring, and that what she was interested in was possible pathologies. She then sketched out the minimal set of data that we’d like to know for each gift occasion:

1) The contemporary value of the gift
2) Its nature
3) Whether publicly given or not
4) Whether it was an appropriate gift
5) Whether it was solicited or not
6) The relationship between the giver and receiver
7) The giver’s motivation
8) The receiver’s reaction
9) Sequel

After a brief reminder of the classic O. Henry story The Gift of the Magi in which a wife secretly sells her long hair to buy a watch chain for her husband, while he in turn sells his watch to buy her a comb, we then got a rapid tour of some of the bizarre vagaries of classical and late antique gift-giving, including:

  • Ruricius of Limoges (Epistola 2-5) sending ‘the best gift’, which could be given and yet not lost, a gift which turns out to be the letter itself (the text of which he then reuses in another letter).
  • Fronto, Ep. graec 5, who gets sent 2 slaves. He says this is too great a gift for him, and therefore the only possible countergift he can give is to return the slaves.
  • Seneca and Martial complaining about tactless or aggressive gifts: sending wine to a drunkard, a shawl with the inscription: ‘I dread busty women’ (?)
  • Venantius Fortunatus’s poem (11.114) on the joy of receiving a milk-pudding with Agnes’ fingerprint in it (sentiment here obviously outweighing hygiene)
  • Jerome’s tendency to send ‘squelching exegesis’ in letters replying to the gifts he received from women (Epistola 31 and Epistola 44), explaining how unsuitable the gifts were. (This confirmed once again all my prejudices about Jerome).

Finally, we got back to Ruricius of Limoges and a letter of his (Epistola 2-35) recommending a paragon of horse he’d sent to Sedatus of Nimes, as big enough to carry him. In reply, we have a joking letter from Sedatus saying the horse is recalcitrant. As Danuta pointed out, how do we judge the tone of this exchange: what was the horse really like? And what about when this description of a horse was reused in the C9 in a letter of Antonius of Brescia to Salomon II of Constance? (MGH Formulae p 421, Collectio Sangallensis 39). Is this an obscure literary joke about gift horses or what? How do we get at the realia behind the intertext?

In contrast to these gifts dissolving into literary effect, we then got a very tangible gift, and one for which, unusually for the early Middle Ages, we may actually have almost Danuta’s proposed minimal set of desired data. This was the gift of the elephant Abulabaz by Harun al-Rashid to Charlemagne in around 800. We know quite a lot about the gift from Frankish sources, but it’s not mentioned in Arabic sources.

Nevertheless, what Paul Cobb was doing was looking at the meaning of such a gift in the Islamic world. Muslim rulers didn’t use elephants in war, unlike earlier Persian rulers. Instead, elephants were a gift for kings, with sources such as the “Book of Animals” building on Greek and Roman elephant lore to say that elephants signified kingship and relating the belief that elephants can sniff out kings in disguise.

Cobb also brought up the significance of the elephant in the Koran: Sura 105 is called ‘The Elephant’, and refers to the story of the Year of the Elephant in which the Christian king of Yemen attempted to destroy the Kaaba in Mecca, but instead the elephant he was riding bowed before the walls of Mecca. The name of the elephant was Mahmood, one of its technonym was Abulabaz, probably the same name as Charlemagne’s elephant (although there are queries with transcriptions of the name). Was there a hidden message in the name of the gift about Islamic theology? Was this a slightly passive-aggressive gift like some of those that Danuta described?

Cobb concluded by saying how the gift, which Charlemagne specifically requested, showed the common roots of Western and Islamic culture in the post-Roman world: Harun was perhaps less civilised than we like to pretend and Charlemagne more so; both were fluent in the language of late antiquity kingship.

The morning session concluded with an outstanding paper by Alice Rio, which started from a long discussion from the Edict of Pitres 864 on self-sale, in which Charles the Bald (or, as I suspect, Hincmar) discussed Roman and Biblical texts on the matter. As Alice pointed out, Charles had to scramble around for Roman legal texts which made the point he wanted, because most Roman law was extremely hostile to self-sale. Selling oneself into slavery was illegal in Roman law, but also a profoundly perverse act: the punishment for self-sale was, in fact, remaining a slave, because the act had revealed a character flaw that meant one was naturally servile.

This view was changed by Christianity’s increased moral valorization of slavery: indeed, a couple of late antique holy men even sold themselves (St Peter the Tax Collector and St Serapion). Late antique moralists, such as Salvian tended to see self-sellers as victims and their buyers as oppressors of the poor.

In contrast, Charles the Bald sees buying a self-seller as a charitable act, and Alice then traced differing discourses of self-sale through to the Marmoutier book of serfs in C11. On the one hand, there was the charitable idea of the buyer as taking someone destitute into service. On the other, from the mid-eight century in Farfa, we can see charters in which self-giving (the emphasis on the financial side of the sale is dropped), is seen as a honourable Christian gift. Who was doing the favour for whom then became the question: by the time of the Marmoutier texts, both the gift aspect and the extreme poverty were stressed, making both seller and buyer of the new unfree person look good. Alice admitted that this change from the idea of self-sale to self-gift probably didn’t make much difference in practice, but the results in symbolic capital were very different.

After lunch, we had the second session, on gifts as objects, which I found less satisfying. For me it confirmed that archaeology, which is superb evidence for some aspects of early medieval life (as Robin Fleming showed) is less effective for a topic where so much resides in specific and contested meanings.

We started with a paper by Irene Barbiera that I found slightly hard to follow, so apologies if my summary isn’t clear. It was also a little uncomfortable as a fit into the session, but quite interesting in itself, as a discussion of gender and brooches in early north Italian graves (from the 1st century BC to the ninth century). Partly this confirmed a point made by Guy Halsall’s work on gender and burials, that grave goods aren’t a simple reflection of sex. For example, whereas in the first century BC, brooches of the same type were found in both male and female graves, there was a lack of brooches in male graves after the C5, even though both sexes still used brooches,

Barbiera had also been looking at texts for the term ‘fibula’, often used for a brooch (though it could also mean belt-buckle). It could be used for either a male or female dress item and she suggested it was used more for male items in C2-C4 and C8-C10, but about equally for both in C5-C7. Male brooches had become a symbol of authority from late antiquity, and remained so into the early Middle Ages. If the fibula was still being conceptualised as a male dress ornament, why did it only appear in female graves, she wondered? She had also discovered that fibulae associated with women were more often referred to as either gold or as a gift in texts from C5-C10, and was arguing that fibulae were becoming a mark of femininity and of treasure in the period, placing owners within a social network. The increasing value of brooches as gifts (I wasn’t clear if she was talking about male, female or both here) meant, she argued that they were becoming too valuable to place in graves.

The second paper was from my colleague, Rory Naismith on coins and gift-giving. The first part of this was countering Philip Grierson’s influential argument (in ‘Commerce in the Dark Ages: a critique of the evidence’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th series, 9 (1959), 123-140) that there was relatively little commerce in the early medieval period, and that much of what we thought was evidence of trade might actually be gift-giving. Rory was reminding us that the numismatic evidence from southern England made this implausible: we’ve now got over 3,500 single finds of coins from the late C7 onwards. (This was also a useful reminder that England may have crashed hard in the post-Roman period, but it did clearly revive more quickly than we might realise from the textual evidence alone).

In the second part of his paper, he looked briefly at textual evidence, mainly from hagiography, for the use of coins even by relatively low-status peasants. But this shouldn’t be seen as evidence for a purely market economy. Church sites, for example, aren’t necessarily noted for their coin finds, even though they’re important drivers of local economies.

Finally Rory looked at the symbolic role of coins, pointing out how when Anglo-Saxon charters refer to money, it’s overwhelmingly gold that’s mentioned, even though the Anglo-Saxon economy is largely dominated by silver coins. Coins were still something more than just money, something that could still be special enough for gift-giving, like Offa’s imitation of a gold dinar, donated to the Pope. There was a move away from the gift-economy in the period, but it wasn’t yet a total shift.


The session ended with Stuart Airlie on the star cloak of Henry II of Germany preserved at Bamberg Cathedral. As Stuart pointed out, there were obvious meanings to this cloak, but also some questions about it. With its images of Christ and the zodiac, it speaks of Henry as lord of the cosmos, and brings parallels to a similar cloak owned by Otto III. But though it’s easy to see it as a ‘symbol of state’, was there really a state for it be a symbol of? Were the designs and the inscriptions meaningful, or the equivalent of Offa’s imitation of Arabic writing on his dinar? We don’t know whether Henry II ever wore the cloak. It was the gift of Duke Meles of Bari: was it intended mainly for Bamberg, where it ended up, a gift to be given through Henry, rather than to him? It was remembered there as the gift of Melis rather than of the emperor until the C12, when the gift’s meaning retrospectively shifted. As Stuart commented at the end of his talk – and it’s a good summary for the whole two sessions: we’re talking about ‘a solid object from a very fluid world’.

Framing the Early Middle Ages 6: Peasants, patterns and prosperity

As long-term readers of this blog will know, my attempts to read and blog my way through Chris Wickham’s monumental book Framing the Early Middle Ages ground to a halt some time ago when I hit the second of his chapters about peasants. I’d freely admit that a lot of the problem is that I simply don’t find early medieval peasants particularly interesting. The topic of settlement archaeology is also one where the book’s absence of maps and pictures is unhelpful, especially for those of us who don’t have a good sense of what a ‘central place’ looks like, or how you tell an ‘articulated’ village from a less articulated one.

But as I finally went back and worked my way through Chapter 8 ‘Rural settlement and village societies’, I realised that part of my problem is also the limits of what such evidence can tell you. Chris sees settlement patterns as ‘peasant artefacts’, and ‘the clearest imprint of the peasantry on the landscape’ (p. 495). Such settlement patterns can help confirm broad social and economic contrasts. For example the continuity of prosperous village collectives of eastern Roman empire, such as the Limestone Massif villages of Syria and Palestine (pp. 443-449) and of Anatolia (pp. 460-464) contrasts with the early medieval collapse of the villa pattern in the West and considerable regional and microregional variation after that.

The problem is that looking at the patterns of rural settlement doesn’t tell you that much about the wider issues of power and society that the book is so interested in, as appears from some of the examples. Settlement patterns, for example, don’t relate directly either to economic relationships, or the extent of aristocratic control (p. 472, 494): Chris points out that aristocrats could dominate either a concentrated or dispersed landscape. Settlement patterns also don’t relate directly to people’s identification with villages: Chris has some interesting discussions (p. 487) of how ways of identifying locations in documents changed in some parts of the West, from a focus on ‘fundi’ (named estates) to lands in a particular ‘vicus’ or ‘locus’, but such villages weren’t necessarily either concentrated settlements or socially active.

Chris also argues (pp 476-477, 481, 514) that one of the biggest changes of all, the Western abandonment of the villa, was a cultural change rather than a sign of economic or political weakness (though I’m unconvinced by that argument). Similarly, he sees the move to building in wood in Italy, and the phenomenon of ‘perchement’ (moving to hilltop sites) ascultural as much as economic changes (pp. 485-486). More convincingly he says that shifts in settlement hierarchy or patterns aren’t necessarily signs of immigration in Spain or France (p. 492, 505).

Rural settlement archaeology can give us clues about social differentiation or its absence (pp. 493-494) via a lack of any settlement hierarchy, but this can also be deduced from the end of urban life and the breakdown of ceramic complexity. And in the sub-region of western Europe where we’ve got the best sense of the spatial framework of settlement, northern France, the settlement hierarchy evidence directly contradicts what we know about social differentiation from other sources, and has to be regarded as missing key sites (pp. 506-507).

So what, if anything can looking at rural settlements tell us? It’s noticeable how often in this chapter the most detailed descriptions of village society turn out to be based on textual evidence, such as the Byzantine text Nomos georgikos (Farmers’ law). The archaeological evidence does give a good way of assessing the broad chronology of economic booms and busts, for example, showing the continued prosperity of many eastern sites until C7 crises (pp 457-459), as contrasted with what looks like economic collapse in C5 England (pp. 502-503). And they’re also an important way of assessing peasant prosperity, distinct from looking at imported goods, and sometimes contradicting their evidence (e.g. at Vorbasse in Denmark, p. 496).

But what this evidence on peasant prosperity suggests is that a lot of the obvious economic models for early medieval societies don’t work. The evidence of housing, for example, suggests relatively prosperous peasants in Vorbasse in Denmark (pp. 496-497), Lauchheim in eastern Alemannia (pp. 500-502) and Goudelancourt-les-Pierrepont in the Île-de-France (pp. 504-505), as well as in a number of eastern villages. So prosperous peasants can be associated with stateless societies, the weak states of northern Europe and the strong state of Byzantium. They can appear both in areas of large-scale aristocratic dominance (which Chris argued in the previous chapter existed in the Île-de-France), in Alemannia, with its emerging aristocratic power, and in Denmark, where Chris sees aristocratic power as weaker (p. 502). That goes against models in which increasing aristocratic dominance is automatically at the expense of peasants, but also against views that either the state is the motor of prosperity or aristocratic demand for consumer goods is. I’ll freely admit to not having a better general model at the moment (one which would also need to explain how poor and horrible life for the early Anglo-Saxons was), and I’d be interested to hear any theories in the comments, as usual. But for now, it’s onto ‘Peasant society and its problems’, which I hope is going to give me material I find rather easier to digest.

Women, archaeology, history and literature

I am way behind at writing up seminars attended (and in posting at all), but given it’s taken us over a thousand years to learn about some of these topics, perhaps a delay of a few months is acceptable. Anyhow, on 9th February at the IHR Earlier Medieval Seminar we had Jane Kershaw from the Institute of Archaeology at Oxford speaking on the topic of ‘New insights on the Viking settlement of England: the small finds evidence’. At some point Jon Jarrett has promised to blog this paper as well, so if you want details from someone who knows rather more about both archaeology and Anglo-Saxon history than me (not difficult), you should probably wait for his take, because he can give a more considered view as to whether Jane’s argument actually holds up. But for now, here’s my rough summary about what the paper was on, leading into some more general thoughts about studying early medieval women.

Jane’s thesis was on culture and gender in the Danelaw, and her main evidence basis was Scandinavian metalwork found in Britain, specifically female brooches. There have been many discussions of the impact of Scandinavian settlers on English society in the ninth and tenth centuries: was there large-scale settlement, or did only a military elite come? Were the settlers simply male, taking English wives or did women/families come across? Where was this settlement and how ‘Scandinavian’ did such settlers remain? What happens after the conquest of the Danelaw by English kings in the early tenth century?

Most of the archaeological evidence to analyse such questions is fairly limited. There are very few so-called ‘Viking’ burials or Viking rural settlements known. We do have stone sculpture, but this really only tells us about elites. What we also now have is new evidence from small metal finds, almost all by metal detectorists, recorded as part of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

There are various limitations to this evidence. It’s very hard to date these finds, since they are normally taken from plough soil, and they may not get recognised: they’re made from base metal alloys and can get very corroded. Reporting also varies between counties, depending on how enthusiastic the county liaison officers are on early medieval stuff (apparently Norfolk have traditionally been far more interested than York, for example). And on the Scandinavian side, metal detecting is popular in Denmark, but illegal in Sweden and Norway, so the evidence base is also skewed from that end. But the big advantage is that we have a lot of evidence: over 500 female dress items in Scandinavian style have been found in England.

There were actually two different types of brooch that Jane was talking about: Scandinavian and Anglo-Scandinavian, and she was using those to discuss different questions. Scandinavian female brooches can be distinguished from Anglo-Saxon ones in a number of ways. As well as different shapes and decorations, they also had distinctive fittings which correspond to different styles of dress. I didn’t catch all the details of this, but there are fundamental differences, such as whether they fasten left to right or right to left. (The fittings also mean that we know these are female rather than male brooches). Anglo-Scandinavian brooches, in contrast, have Anglo-Saxon style fittings, but Scandinavian designs. Both Scandinavian and Anglo-Scandinavian brooches also sometimes have a different metal content from Anglo-Saxon ones (some are made of brass, whereas zinc isn’t used in Anglo-Saxon jewellery until C12). This suggests that they’re either made in Scandinavia or somewhere which has access to Scandinavian metal.


Copper alloy Borre style flat disc brooch (865-900), found in Lincolnshire

Jane was using the Scandinavian brooches (about 120 of them) and their distribution to look at the question of the number and type of Scandinavian settlers. What is noteworthy is how much variety there is in the types of Scandinavian brooches found. They’re not mass-produced, but instead we have a lot of different styles, which match up with finds in Scandinavia (both from metal-detecting and digs). The brooch types found in Scandinavia come from different regions (mostly Danish), and also date from the 870s through to the C10, sometimes even the later C10. So English jewellery is keeping up with Danish fashions. There’s no evidence for manufacture of them in England, while some share casting faults with Danish models. What is more, the distribution of these types is diffuse, rather than concentrated on urban centres. Jane argues that this suggests that these brooches aren’t coming in via trade (especially since there’s little evidence of any Anglo-Saxon trade to Scandinavia). Instead, she sees these brooches as coming with individual Scandinavian women, and that this suggests continued female migration over an extended period, which would explain the varied and changing styles.

For the Anglo-Scandinavian brooches, in contrast, of which we have around 350, we do have evidence of manufacture in this country and more concentrated patterns. These are brooches which are worn with Anglo-Saxon costume (judging by their fittings), but which Jane argued were intended to look ‘Scandinavian’. (There was discussion afterwards about what, if any ethnic identity they were intended to convey – could it have been a more regional or local identity, or simple a particular design becoming fashionable?)

These Anglo-Scandinavian brooches are found widespread in Danish-influenced areas of England (but not other neighbouring areas, such as Kent, which suggests at least some ‘ethnic’ component). There is a particular concentration in Norfolk and evidence for manufacture of them in Norwich, whereas some other areas in the Midlands and the north have far fewer examples, such as Yorkshire or the area around the Five Boroughs. This may be partly due to differences in recording finds between counties, but a real difference is likely.

This provides an interesting contrast to traditional place name evidence for Scandinavian influence, which is concentrated in Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and the Midlands, with very few such names in Norfolk. But Jane was pointing out that more recent studies of minor place names (rather than simply settlement names) showed more Scandinavian place names in Norfolk, including quite a number influenced by female Scandinavian names. The brooch distribution also seemed to fit with what’s been called the ‘Gipping divide’ in East Anglia, with two distinct cultures, seen in terms of late medieval farming practices, but which may go back earlier. Furthermore, some of the Anglo-Scandinavian brooches are of relatively high status and late (with comparisons made to pendants found in Saffron Waldron in the mid to late C10, and a die found in Lincolnshire). Although the Danelaw had theoretically been conquered in the first quarter of the tenth century, this continued identification with Scandinavian culture leads to questions about how effective the conquest or control was, and fits with other negative evidence – that there was no regular coinage in East Anglia until the 930s, and that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle doesn’t mention the submission of Lincoln. These areas may still have had a Scandinavian-identified elite and Danish control for longer than has been realised.

Jane’s arguments sound plausible to me, as a non-specialist in the area. But in some ways, what is even more interesting is a reminder of how much we can learn about women, including relatively non-elite women from archaeological evidence. It got me wondering again about the limits of history and other disciplines in studying early medieval women. In particular, it connected up with the intense irritation I’d recently had when starting to read Clare Lees and Gillian Overing Double Agents: Women and Clerical Culture in Anglo-Saxon England.

In the Introduction, Lees and Overing claim: ‘we work firmly within the perspective of cultural materialism of critics such as Raymond Williams’ (p 2), and part of their avowed aim is to examine questions such as ‘where were the women in the early Germanic invasions, whom did they marry, how were they educated and what role did they play in the education of others’ (p 5). And yet though a number of these questions might be most effectively approached via archaeological data, there’s not a squeak about that. Instead Double Agents moves ‘between the two reified poles of history and literature’ (xi), because cultural materialism and material culture apparently have absolutely nothing to do with one another. In fact I was so put off that I haven’t so far been able to get beyond my irritation with the authors to see if there’s something useful in the substance of the papers, or if it’s just pirouetting on the surface of a few selected texts to prove that Anglo-Saxonists can do theory too.

This all brings back the comments of a paper by Guy Halsall at the IMC in 2009 which was scathing about interdisciplinarity, and about the idea that literature and history were actually two different disciplines after the literary turn and the new historicism. But it also got me thinking about whether being a historian and studying early medieval women is like using a rock to bang in nails: possible, but not the most effective use of energy. If it comes down to it, I must admit that my commitment is to being a historian rather than the study of women per se, if only because I want a research life that involves ‘an indoor job with no heavy lifting’. And I think that for the Carolingian period, there is enough textual evidence that I can bring something to the party. (There’s also less archaeological evidence, owing to the lack of grave goods in the period and the prohibition of metal detecting on the Continent). But it’s always good to be reminded that the historian’s approach isn’t the only one possible to look at the meaning of early medieval lives.

Anglo-Saxon shiny objects 1: the Staffordshire Hoard

The original CIA (the Courtauld Institute of Art) recently held its first conference for 25 years on Anglo-Saxon art, with a day on New Light in Dark Places: Recent Discoveries & New Directions in Anglo-Saxon Studies. The morning session was on the Staffordshire Hoard, the first time I’d heard any papers on that. (The afternnon session was on Anglo-Saxon art more generally, which I’ll try and blog about later).

We had two papers directly on the hoard itself, from Leslie Webster and Gareth Williams, both of the British Museum, setting out some of the details of the hoard. As Leslie Webster said at the start, although early Anglo-Saxon archaeologists have a set of tools for examining the dynamics of burials and their meanings, ‘we don’t do hoards’, and one of the key points made was just how unusual this hoard is. Gareth Williams summarised the distinctive features: there is an unprecedented quantity of gold (5.1 kg of gold, 1.5 kg of silver), the material is largely fragmented or damaged (3490 individual pieces) and the identified material is almost all military gear (though there is a lot of material that hasn’t been identified yet, so any conclusions are provisional).

Gareth started with some discussion of wealth and warfare in the early Saxon period, for example, the various levels of monetization that different societies might have, from check your own weight bullion at one end to exclusive use of local standard coin at the other. (He also pointed out the problems with distinguishing between units of account, units of weight and actual coins in texts). He next touched on the size of armies in the seventh century, seeing armies in hundreds of men and rarely low thousands. He then got onto the specific question of what the hoard was. As a dragon’s bed, it would only be big enough for a labrador-sized dragon to lie on. He thinks the hoard had to have been deposited in a military context. It doesn’t look like a bullion hoard, because you’d expect other sorts of ornament in it as well and also coins. He thinks it too big for a goldsmith’s hoard, nor does he see it as a royal treasury/armoury, because you’d expect complete weapons, not just sword hilts. His conclusion was that it was spoil from the aftermath of a battle, and specifically wondered about the battle of the River Trent in 679, when the Northumbrians invaded the Mercian heartland and then got defeated.

However, some of the points that Leslie Webster brought up don’t fit so well with that view. Firstly, though there are least 87 sword pommels and 354 hilt fittings, there’s no body armour and only parts of 1 helmet and 1 shield fitting. (There are also a lot more fittings for swords than seaxes, which is a change from the burial evidence). The pommels don’t look to be for remounting, because they’ve often been bent and twisted. A lot of the items look deliberately broken, rather than from plough damage. Leslie raised the possibility that more than one parcel of treasures had been deposited originally, but that would still probably mean that this particular selection had been deliberately made.

There’s also a wide date range of the hoard – the cross inscription has been variously dated to late C7 or early C8. (There was apparently a major debate about this between Michelle Brown and David Ganz at the recent British Museum conference – papers from this conference are supposedly going to go up on a website soon). The pommels date stylistically from early/mid sixth-century to second half of the seventh century. There’s also a range of styles in the hoard, some of which can be associated with specific regions e.g. ones like Sutton Hoo material and some that might be Mercian, Kentish or even Northumbrian. That suggests that the items might be being collected over some time, rather than from one battle. The possibility of antique weapons still being in use seems less likely given that although all the sword pommels show heavy wear (from the top being rubbed while worn, not necessarily from actual fighting), the older-style pommels don’t show heavier wear than the newer ones. Leslie ended with one other possible context for the hoard, referring to how St Wilfred donated treasure to his retinue on his death bed, and wondering whether the hoard might possibly be that of an ecclesiastical prince, not a secular ruler.

What came out of both papers was the possible symbolic role of the hoard. Gareth mentioned that weapons might have had their pommels removed and replaced, symbolically breaking ties between the weapon giver and owner. The two other more general papers in the morning sessions picked up some of these symbolic meanings. John Hines discussed ‘Anglo-Saxon society in the seventh century’, talking mainly about social structures and seeing the period as one of emerging ‘middle’ ranks, between the king and the ‘folk’ of the earliest kingdoms. He thought that the Sutton Hoo buckle for example, might symbolise this. In his view, it was too heavy actually to wear on a belt, but its weight is close to 300 solidi of gold, the wergild of a nobleman, so could be to show the status of someone claiming to rule over such noblemen. He pointed out that in those terms, the whole Staffordshire hoard contained the wergild of 12-13 noblemen or 70-80 freemen. We know from the sources of payments four times that size, so though the hoard may look huge, it’s not so in absolute terms. He also speculated that the gold pommels were associated with thegns rather than ceorls, and that if we assume 1 thegn to every 5 ceorls (as one Anglo-Saxon text apparently does), then 85 thegns’ pommels would equate to an area of around 500 hides, down at the level of some of the smallest political units within seventh century kingdoms, as seen in the Tribal Hidage.

Possible symbolic meanings were taken even further in a strange but intriguing paper by Steven Plunkett on ‘Fields of gold: values in transition in seventh-century ornament’. His focus was on the emotional and spiritual effect of seventh-century objects, and he was convincing on some of the aesthetic effects that might contribute to this. He started with hanging bowls as seen at Sutton Hoo, but also found elsewhere in the British Isles. The decoration on the Sutton Hoo bowl has cross symbolism, and Steven saw this as Christian protection for the bowl. He argued that it was used for holding holy water, which was used in the period both for exorcism and for anointing the sick, and pointed out how water would magnify and brighten the decoration inside the bowl, while the minute detail of the enamel, made only to be contemplated in detail, would sacralise the plain space beside it, drawing the viewer’s gaze in. He also linked such bowls to earlier Greek and Roman traditions of sacred water and divination in water bowls (there is also apparently a reference to hydromancy in the Historia Brittonum). Even if these specific resonances don’t apply here, I think his more general point about the numinous effect of light on water may well hold good.

Steven, as well as others at the conference, discussed how some Anglo-Saxon ornament visible on metalwork (such as spiral decoration) is also seen in early manuscripts, such as the Book of Durrow. Rather than getting into the vexed question of dating and which way the influences run, however, he was making a more general point about how ornament itself can be sacramental and ritualise an object, drawing the eye beyond the surface. He was particularly interesting on how this might combine with the other function of treasure, as display of wealth and honour. (As he pointed out, the Anglo-Saxons used the same word for an honoured person and a decorated object – though you’ll have to find an OE expert to tell you exactly what this word was, because I don’t know). Part of the jeweller’s art was to produce hypnotic effects and Steven gave the example of the Sutton Hoo shoulder clasps. The eye seeks out and follows the curved shapes and ends up oscillating between two ambiguous surfaces, the reflective foils behind the garnets and the garnets themselves, being led from the visible to the invisible.

The ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular’ combine here, as also on the Staffordshire cross, which may have been taken on the battlefield. Rich decoration could lead one onto God, as in the cross encased in gold and gems of the Dream of the Rood. The same numinous power of ornament and gold exalted Anglo-Saxon kings, conveying their transcendental worth.

If you combine these various symbolic meanings of treasure together, gold as a sign of personal worth, ornament as a focus for contemplation in a visually less-crowded world, then the Staffordshire hoard may reflect a conscious use of this symbolism. If Leslie Webster’s right about the dating, this wasn’t a one-off grabbing of spoils, but something more systematic. I wondered whether it might be some kind of tribute-taking, the repeated removal of specific symbolic objects from several subordinate kingdoms (given the regional differences)? If a gold pommel symbolises a man’s worth, what does taking it away it and breaking it up do to his self-image, even if he’s unhurt? What does it mean to you as a warrior if you get given even a fragmentary strip of gold and cloisonne garnet by a lord or a king? We don’t know yet all the details of the hoard, which is still being cleaned and examined, but its broader significance for exploring both the material and cultural world of the early Anglo-Saxons is already visible.

A History of the World in 100 Objects

I rarely link to TV and radio programmes, because they’re often not accessible in other countries, but I want to make an exception for an unusual history project currently on the BBC. A History of the World in 100 Objects started off as a radio series about objects in the British Museum, but now is developing ever more offshoots. For example, there are sites showcasing treasures from particular regions, including items from the Fitzwilliam Museum’s collection, and the chance to add images of your own historical objects.

The idea of radio programmes about material culture may seem peculiar, but actually works well, especially when it’s possible to go to the website and see images of the object afterwards or while listening. The focus on objects rather than texts also means that the programmes can offer a world-wide focus and go back into prehistory. As a way of thinking about comparative history, it’s eye-opening. I don’t know whether the website will remain up after the end of the year, when the series finishes: I hope so, because it’s definitely worth some detailed exploring.